Three years after plans for the construction of a new Minor League Baseball stadium in Providence fell through, the State House is once again embroiled in a battle over baseball. This time, the clash is over legislation for a new stadium in Pawtucket. The conflict centers on the Pawtucket Red Sox, a Minor League Baseball team affiliated with the Boston Red Sox, who want to play in a new park.
The team, the city of Pawtucket, and the state of Rhode Island concluded that basic renovations to the current McCoy Stadium would cost $35 million. “There’s an expansion joint that has started to come apart that is causing major water damage to the facility,” Bart Harvey, special assistant to the chairman of the PawSox, told the Independent. Adding new amenities and re-configuring the stadium’s seating would cost $68 million, while razing McCoy entirely and replacing it with a new stadium at the same location would take $78 million.
In January, after extensive public hearings, the Senate passed bills to fund the construction of a stadium at a new site in downtown Pawtucket, where the abandoned Apex department store currently sits. This current plan includes 50,000 square feet of space around the stadium for businesses, according to Harvey. The site is also adjacent to the Slater Mill, a former cotton mill that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Cost projections for the Slater Mill park come out to $83 million, with $45 million invested by the team’s ownership, $23 million by the state, and $15 million by the city. That legislation, which has already drawn the support of Governor Gina Raimondo, is now pending in the House. Each point in this drawn-out process has drawn the attention of local media outlets and exacerbated tensions within the State House and between labor and local organizers.
On a sunny, cold day last Saturday in Pawtucket, children played cornhole as a musician strummed a guitar and sang from underneath a blue-and-white carnival tent in front of McCoy Stadium. As fans filed in, the Pawtucket Red Sox prepared to take on the LeHigh Valley Pigs in the opening game of the team’s 2018 season. Paying for his ticket, Tim Weir, wearing a Red Sox hat, looked up at the cashier. “We gotta keep this team in Pawtucket,” he said.
McCoy Stadium rests east of the Seekonk River in central Pawtucket. Nearby, bygone industrial sites sit across from pale-colored clapboard houses with concrete walk-ups and white painted iron railings. Many houses have chain-link fencing surrounding their yards, some with brown vines woven into the links. Just outside the stadium, across from the Right Spot Diner, the neighborhood begins.
Aside from the costs for renovation at McCoy, Harvey said the site, even if developed, isn’t in a commercial area that could attract much business or foot traffic. “What we, meaning the PawSox and the city and the state, recognized was that [developing McCoy] was not going to be a strategic use of public funds.”
Instead, the PawSox are supporting the legislation in the State House, which would bring the team about a mile and a half away to downtown Pawtucket. Many state legislators and union representatives see a new stadium as an opportunity to revitalize a struggling city by heralding a wave of new business to the area. “The city has beautiful bones,” said Harvey, “but it’s been in decline.”
Union representatives and state legislators sometimes have similar interests, which can encourage legislators to support bills that would provide local laborers with well-paying jobs. In some cases, these two groups have an explicit connection: the Senate President, Dominick Ruggerio, recently retired as an Administrator of the New England Laborers Labor Management Co-op Trust.
Parties interested in the deal, like union leaders and the governor, are also concerned that if the city doesn’t build a new stadium in Pawtucket, the PawSox will decide to move elsewhere. They are particularly worried that the city of Worcester, Massachusetts has expressed interest in the project.
“If you drive by that Apex site ten years from now and it’s still an abandoned Apex site and the PawSox are in Worcester, I think we are all going to regret it,” Raimondo told the Providence Journal.
Despite the sense of urgency in securing a deal, Larry Berman, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s spokesman, told the Indy that these standing offers from Worcester and other cities have yet to find financial backing.
“Worcester has not guaranteed or even offered a dime yet,” he said. “We don’t know if the PawSox are using Worcester as a bluff or what.”
David Norton, a resident of Pawtucket who recently ran for state Senate and opposed the new stadium in Providence three years ago, agrees.
“They’ve got nowhere to go,” he told the Indy.
The team has consistently emphasized that its offer to fund 54 percent of the project is more than twice what most farm teams have been called to invest in their own publicly owned ballparks. Still, $15 million is a sizable investment for the city, which has an annual budget of just under $124 million. Much of the city’s funding for the project would be provided by new revenue from property taxes at the site, according to an economic analysis commissioned by the Pawtucket Foundation. Though the foundation is a non-profit with broad goals of promoting economic development across Pawtucket, few have failed to miss that the PawSox are one of their trustees. Moreover, some Pawtucket residents are worried that any financial figure is too much for the city to bear, especially given what else the city’s money could fund.
“Pawtucket shouldn’t be building this [stadium] for a bunch of rich guys while our schools are falling apart,” said Norton. This critique, in recent months, feels particularly apt, as one Pawtucket elementary school has closed multiple times because of insufficient heat from its 100-year-old boiler.
In addition to those in Pawtucket, the state’s Republican Party is vehemently against tax dollars going towards a new stadium and has devoted many of its recent press releases to the issue. “While our children attend schools in need of repair, Raimondo has prioritized spending millions to build a new PawSox stadium to please her donors,” the party’s Chairman Brandon S. Bell said in a statement in September. Last May he noted that Raimondo had “pushed for cuts to social services to balance the budget” while offering to fund a new ballpark.
As the legislation sits in the House, the spotlight is on House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a representative from Cranston. Following protests and a well-supported petition three years ago, Mattiello was the one ultimately responsible for burying the proposal to move the PawSox to Providence. After this public outcry against the deal in Providence in 2015, Mattiello appears to be proceeding cautiously this time. He has already halted movement on legislation in January because of a poll from this past fall that showed a majority of Rhode Islanders opposed the deal, according to GoLocalProv.
Since Mattiello won his Cranston district in 2016 by a mere 85 votes, his prudence is perhaps predictable. Last fall, the PawSox and the city of Pawtucket collaborated on a flier they dropped in Mattiello’s district in support of the Slater Mill park. Soon afterwards, union leaders—who see a new stadium as a strong and needed employment opportunity for their members—began boycotting Mattiello’s fundraisers, looking to shift the debate away from the possibility of a popular referendum. To bolster their argument for a new stadium in Pawtucket, some of these same union and construction leaders released a poll—four months after GoLocalProv’s poll—claiming that a majority of Rhode Islanders, after being told that the “park would pay for itself,” wanted to keep the team in Rhode Island and supported the current deal. In light of this new poll, Mattiello postponed meeting with PawSox executives until mid-March.
At the meeting, Mattiello expressed his concern to the team’s ownership that if the team were to vacate the new stadium due to bankruptcy, the taxpayers would be “on the hook” for its costs, Berman said. As the current deal is debated in the House Finance Committee, Mattiello has further asked the team to “mitigate some of the risk [away from] the Rhode Island and Pawtucket taxpayers.” Last week, the PawSox owners sent over a counter-offer that may address some of the Speaker’s concerns. While still reviewing the counter-offer, the Speaker remains skeptical that development around the stadium would actually occur, knowing how quickly the idea of large-scale public projects sour in the mind of taxpayers. Acknowledging the union-backed poll, Berman argued that it’s only “when you throw in all the cookies [the public] says ‘OK, maybe that’s a good idea.’”
If deciphering the public’s wishes isn’t difficult enough, any moves to direct public funding to a private entity are under increased scrutiny these days. The memory of the state’s catastrophic 2010 financial investment in 38 Studios, Curt Schilling’s failed video game company, still lingers in many people’s minds. Schilling—who, coincidentally, last played for the PawSox during an injury rehab assignment in 2007—received $70 million in financial backing from the state, as they hoped the funds would lure 38 Studios to set up its headquarters in Rhode Island. Two years later, the company was bankrupt and taxpayers owed the loan’s bondholders almost $90 million.
“We began to call it 38 Stadium,” Norton said. “It fits the same bill.”
Proponents of the new stadium, predictably, disagree. “Anytime there’s a public-private deal [in Rhode Island], people are going to invoke 38 Studios as a blanket comment,” Greg Mancini, the director and general counsel of Build R.I., a non-profit trade association who commissioned the February poll, told the Indy. “That was a video game. This is bricks and mortar.”
To many in Pawtucket, the team means more than just economic revitalization. “The PawSox are an institution that have been a part of the fabric of the Pawtucket community for a long time,” said Sandra Cano, a Democratic Pawtucket city council member who won a special election for state Senate in Pawtucket this month. For a city that’s come up against hard times, she said the city should jump at the team’s offer to invest $45 million in a public venue. In contrast, her Republican opponent, Nathan Luciano, as well as Norton, one of her Democratic primary opponents, positioned themselves against the stadium deal. Norton said people in Rhode Island want the team to stay at McCoy “because it’s affordable and because it has history, in the same way that Fenway Park has history.” He said people call McCoy a “gem” and that he thinks negotiators involved in the potential stadium deal “balloon up” the price of repairs to make it look less feasible.
To Norton, much of the stadium’s draw is for families, and he’s concerned that moving the team would inevitably raise ticket prices. The PawSox said they are aware of this issue, as they are consistently deemed the most affordable team for families in their Minor League tier. In light of this, if the deal goes through, the team pledges to freeze ticket prices for at least five years.
In addition to their affordability, the PawSox have emotional significance to Rhode Island, a state with no major-league sports franchises to call its own. Pawtucket “could lose the PawSox, and I think that’s devastating,” said Norton.
Although no time table has been set, Berman said there will likely be a resolution on the matter by the end of the session in June.
Tim Weir spit sunflower seeds onto the pavement outside McCoy Stadium. He gestured up at the stands. “This is a dump, everybody knows it, but it’s got a lot of character,” he told the Indy, shifting his feet. “The state’s hurting,” he said, adding that the opioid crisis in the New England region has only worsened already existing economic woes. He trailed off and grimaced, chewing seeds stored in his cheek. He said he looks at other Minor League teams, at their new stadiums, and he wants something similar for his state.
Driving south on I-95 from Pawtucket, the interstate passes right by the abandoned Apex department store, just before the highway crosses the Seekonk River. The empty parking lot, rusting white street lamps, and blemished building can be seen from the highway.
“If they put [the stadium] there it’d be like a shining jewel,” Weir said. “It would be a shot in the arm to Rhode Island.”
IAN STEVENSON B’18.5 bunts against the shift.